The Root Of It All

I hear a lot of reasons why people are frustrated with their jobs and their manager:

Out of nowhere, she started asking me to send a weekly spreadsheet documenting all the tasks I’ve done and how much time each took.

He doesn’t speak to me unless he needs something.

He steps in and answers everyone's questions and won’t let me run the project update meetings. I’m not being recognized as an expert in what I do.

In my extremely (un)scientific research on what makes employees unhappy, what’s stood out is that all of the reasons I hear have something in common: people just want to feel needed and appreciated.

It’s the root of it all.

Not feeling appreciated creates tension. At first, the employee manages it, either by seeking feedback from someone else or shrugging it off as a phase and assuming it will change.

But this behavior isn’t sustainable and over time the tension grows.

The frustrating thing is most people feel too awkward saying “I just want to know that I’m doing a good job and you appreciate my work” so they don’t say anything at all. Instead, they let it fester. And that festering becomes a hidden message for the manager to decipher, which is scary because without exceptional emotional intelligence, most managers don’t pick up on anything being wrong until there is a resignation letter in front of them.

Of course we want the employee to advocate for themselves but a manager can’t control if that happens. So, how can we gauge if employees are feeling needed and appreciated?

Ask.

Use open-ended questions that leave room for talk about feelings (the dreaded “f” word):

·        How can I be the most helpful to you this week?

·        What’s motivated you this past week?

·        What is your biggest accomplishment this month?

·        What could I be doing differently to make sure you feel supported?

·        What can I do to help you enjoy your work more? 

To dig deeper, use follow up questions like “Could you tell me a little more about that?” or “What has that experience been like for you?” that uncover their true feelings. Watch for blinking words - what are they saying that indicates they don’t feel appreciated? It could be an illusion to not having enough resources or support for a project, or feeling unprepared to deal with an angry customer. During the conversation, also ask yourself: How would I feel if this were me?

Because that will be the most important question of all.

The Struggle is Real

Four years ago I became a mom. I had changed only a handful of diapers in my life and was never a babysitter growing up, but I thought for sure that motherhood was going to be easy, that I would quickly learn how to feed, bathe and change my daughter and then everything would be smooth sailing.

Ha.

The first four months of my daughter's life found us parenting a baby with colic and acid reflux. This meant she cried every time she ate, every time she was uncomfortable, every time she felt like it (so, 5+ hours a day for roughly 120 days). And suddenly I was forced to learn an entirely new set of skills that I had rarely ever practiced before, both personally or professionally (truthfully I thought I was already good at them):

Flexibility. Patience. Not always being right.

The crying was brutal. Just when I thought I'd mastered the "thing" to make her stop , it would stop working. The different reflux treatments we tried each took time to gauge its effectiveness - there wasn't one single thing that immediately made a difference - because babies aren't robots and there isn't a one size fits all solution (try telling that to a sleep deprived mom who is barely eating or showering).

My over-achieving, A player, smarty pants personality could barely handle it. I was wrong often. Forced to be flexible, bending to her needs every hour, giving up plans with friends to stay home. Patiently waiting out the crying. Patiently waiting for the new medicine to show results.

And isn't this just like being a manager for the first time? We promote employees to lead others because they seemingly have it all together. They know the subject matter and get great results, so because of that, they'll be great at managing, right? Read a few books, ask for advice from a few trusted sources ... the rest will be easy.

That's certainly what I thought about motherhood.

Managing people requires flexibility. Patience. Not always being right. And new managers have a hard time with that. Weren't they promoted for always being right? Taking charge and fixing things? Suddenly they're being asked to step back and get results through others. That's tough on the ego if you've been the one doing all the things and getting all the results for your entire career.

Without a good leader to emulate and a mentor to coach and develop, most new managers find themselves in the same situation as motherhood found me: forced to learn new skills in the moment and pushing back on the self-awareness that inside was telling me to "slow down, be flexible, have patience, try again."

We promote employees who are good at their jobs, rarely wondering if they're good with people. Yet we're surprised when they are miserable and the team starts complaining about being micro-managed or not managed enough.

No one is surprised when a first time mom admits she is struggling, so why are we surprised when a first time manager admits it? The assumption is that the employee, having had the magic wand of promotion waved over them, will suddenly know how to manage people. Schedule a 1:1 (aka learn how to feed and change the baby) and everything else falls into place.

I realized I needed a huge support system (still do) when I became a mom four years ago, but it took me months of misery to put my ego aside and reach out for help. It's a guarantee that the same thing is happening to new managers. The only difference is they're probably showering every day.

Can a Bad Manager Be Saved?

People leave people, not companies, right?

We're in an epidemic of low engagement (I like to call this "The Working Dead") and no matter how many perks a company offers, employees are still unhappy.

Managers make or break an employee.

Think about it.

A good manager develops and grows people. Listens. Understands everyone's values, gives autonomy and purpose (If you haven't read Drive by Dan Pink stop what you're doing and immediately go buy it), and provides regular feedback that comes from a place of good intentions.

A bad manager can't be trusted, puts the team last, is selfish. Doesn't provide regular feedback, set goals, or share information. Gossips. Acts passive-aggressively and quite possibly also has low integrity. (Having any one of these characteristics is a problem; count yourself lucky if you've worked for someone who had them all!)

When I find someone who has a bad manager (which I'm defining as a boss who has many of the qualities above or additional ones I didn't list - not just a few that can be overlooked) we start our coaching sessions by first looking within and seeing what changes can be made that might impact the manager's behavior. For example:

  • Are you taking things too personally?
  • How are you setting yourself up for success? Are you giving your manager a reason to do <insert behavior here>?
  • Are you always assuming the worst? Too much of a pessimist?

When someone has a bad manager this helps for a little while, but since it's a band-aid and treats the symptom (the employee's behavior), instead of getting to the root of the problem (the manager), the results aren't sustained. And that's the moment of truth:

Can you give your boss this feedback, and if so will it change his or her behaviors?

Yes! Pass go, collect your $200, jump for joy. This means the manager has self-awareness and high emotional intelligence. Which means he's willing to listen, empathize with what you're saying, and won't be offended.

No. It's a lost cause. If you can't talk it out for fear of being reprimanded or because she is so clueless that she won't take the feedback seriously, it's time to move on.

A bad manager can only be saved if there is high emotional intelligence, of which two components are empathy and self-awareness. These characteristics are the foundation of everything that comes next (continuous feedback, a support system, good leaders to emulate). Without these, it's a lost cause.

Why Does it Matter?

If you had to list your top values and how describe how each one is being met at work, could you do it?

Most people can't.

Think about a time something at work didn't feel right -

  • A colleague threw you under the bus in order to take the credit on saving a big account from cancelling
  • Your boss didn't recognize you for the revenue-generating project you spent months leading
  • No one on your team collaborates, instead preferring to work independently and in a silo
  • Overtime is often expected, and it comes at the expense of missing important family events

Why are some situations bigger triggers than others?

This is where values come in.

Our values are our personal bottom line.

They are our parameters for decision making and the principles by which we operate (I wish I could take credit for this line, but it's from The Leadership Challenge, which every manager should read).

When we don't know our values, we say things like "I'm unhappy at work but I can't pinpoint why" or "I don't know what would make me happy." We wallow in self-pity because we aren't empowered to change the situation. We job hop because we can't define exactly what we want, but maybe the next job has it. Guess what? It never does.

When we consciously know our values and someone acts with low integrity, or we don't feel needed and appreciated, or don't feel like part of the team, we can pinpoint exactly what's wrong.

Knowing personal values can help articulate why we stay (or leave) a job. It improves communication with our manager about how we want to grow (or explain why we don't want that promotion, because not everyone values growth). It identifies what we will (and won't) put up with at work.

There are a lot of great online resources to help determine personal values. A favorite of mine is from MindTools and can be found here. After going through this exercise, code each value with either a red, yellow, or green highlighter:

  • Red - this value is not being met and probably will never be
  • Yellow - this value is not being met but there's hope
  • Green - this value is being met

Then, let it marinate.

Why do you stay at your job? Why are you happy? Or are you unhappy? Why did <insert latest annoying behavior from a colleague here> get under your skin so much last week?

Let your values be your guide.

You Want Me to Do What?

Most managers aren't taught to talk about the talent on their team. They're conditioned to focus on business results, not succession planning or development or any of that "mushy" HR stuff.

So imagine the feelings of anxiety when a meeting titled "Talent Calibration" appears in a manager's inbox.

You want me to talk about the performance review ratings I gave my team? And say out loud what I think each person's potential is? And listen to what my peers think about those ratings I gave? And give feedback about people who aren't even on my team? Do you want my first born too?

The first time a calibration meeting happens, managers freeze.

... crickets ...

They're scared. They might say the wrong thing. The information feels so private. They want to protect their team. They don't want to look like a bad leader. They don't want to have a negative impact on someone's salary or bonus.

As a Talent Manager, talking about performance and potential ratings is second nature but when launching a talent calibration for the first time, it's critical that I acknowledge managers don't feel the same. I have to take a thoughtful approach so they feel less anxious on the day of the meeting.

I meet with the executive ahead of time to gauge the current team culture and help with messaging. Are managers feeling beat down? Are they energized after coming off of a great year? What am I walking into? This is crucial - it lets me know how positively or negatively I can expect conversations to go, which impacts the type of questions I ask.

We also talk about goals for the session. Do they want to succession plan? Use the 9-Box grid to come up with development activities for the top 15%? Maybe just help managers get a feel for how their peers rate employees? Then, we create the communication, which looks like an email explaining the what and why, along with a follow up conversation in the next team meeting. HR should not be the messenger when introducing the concept of a talent calibration.

I use encouraging language leading up to the meeting. This sounds simple, but it has a huge impact. In the calendar invite, I also share why we are calibrating (we want to identify and promote your most talented people!) and what the manager needs to do (be prepared to share all the amazing things your people are doing!). I drive by their desk and ask "How are you feeling about this week's calibration meeting? What questions do you have?" And then I listen.

The meeting always starts slow. No one talks except the executive and the manager of the employee being presented, and that's ok. We start with the 4 and 5 performance ratings (the highest ratings that can be earned) so that the conversation is lighter and easier. The more positive and transparent that the executive is, the more quickly managers start talking.

I worked with Felicia on the xyz project and agree that she exceeds expectations. Her attention to detail and willingness to take on more work just to make sure we delivered on time impressed me. I'd say that she is definitely developing and could be ready in 1-3 years for a promotion.

I encourage.

This is exactly what we're looking for! Thanks Jim for sharing.

I ask probing questions.

If Margaret got a 4, do you think she should be rated as high potential instead of developing? What is holding her back? Who else has worked with Margaret?

It takes a few rounds, but gradually I see the anxiety begin to wear off.

Managers walking into a calibration for the first time have their armor on. They want to shield themselves, hide from disagreement, and protect their people. It's the Talent Manager's job to break through that armor because the outcomes can be so, so motivating: improved ability to rate performance, increased knowledge of who's who in the department, and individualized development activities that grow and motivate employees.

First comes encouragement and communication.

Then the magic happens.

Check Your Intentions at the Door

Tone is everything, No wait, word choice is everything. No, it's timing. Timing is everything.

There are so many components of "good" communication that its hard to remember what do to (or say). This means it's our subconscious that is usually guiding the conversation.

Subconscious? Yes. The part of our brain that is shaped by life - how we were raised, how we've been treated by others, the types of work experiences we've had.

It looks like:

Interrupting (without thinking "is now the right time to share my idea?") because of the excitement to share or the fear that it is going to be impossible to get a word in edge wise.

Yelling (without thinking "if I put myself in her shoes, how would she feel if I yelled?") at an employee when a deadline is missed because of pressure from the boss or numbness to the effect of yelling in the workplace.

Firing off a rude email (without thinking "should I call him or walk over to his desk instead?") because a colleague messed up on a project and wanting him to feel bad about it because that's what's been done to you in the past.

You get the picture. It's speaking without thinking. Everyone does it, but frequency is the difference. If 90% of the time you are thinking before speaking, then very rarely do you say something rude, embarrass an employee, or come across as inflexible (or worse, arrogant). Because that means you're checking your intention at the door.

  • Am I saying this to purposely be rude?
  • Could how I'm saying this be taken the wrong way?
  • How is this person feeling right now?

When we pay attention to our intention, then tone, timing and word choice become irrelevant. If we intend to be mean, our actions reflect it, but if we intend to be kind, which is what I wholeheartedly believe all people intend, then our actions reflect kindness. And how much better does it feel when we work with people who 90% of the time purposely intend to be kind, and when they mess up the other 10%, realize what they've done and apologize for it?

Next time you walk into a meeting, pause at the door and ask yourself "What are my intentions for this meeting?" It will change the conversation.

The Working Dead

Is this as good as it gets?

So many companies have teams that consistently show poor engagement because managers don't know how to meet the needs of their employees. Recent Gallup research shows that actively disengaged employees (24%) outnumber engaged employees (13%) by nearly 2-to-1 (The Damage Inflicted by Poor Managers).

Let's call these actively disengaged employees the working dead.

Yikes.

I talk with so many people who are unhappy at work because of their manager (according to the research above, it's about 1 in every 4 people). They are left in the dark about what's going on, delegated to without support (I like to call this the "drop and run" because managers think they're delegating when in fact they're just passing a task on to their employee without following up to see if they actually have the knowledge or motivation to complete the task), living in fear because they've been given surprise feedback, or dealing with the backlash of trying to balance family and work.

And yet, they stay. Why?

Because motivation is not an infinite resource. At a certain point, most employees stop fighting their circumstances and accept that even though they're unhappy, at least they know what they're dealing with and a new job could be even worse. Why bother trying to leave?

Think about the impact of the working dead at the office:

  • Gossip- They talk about everyone and everything, putting off work they should be doing because they don't really care anyway.
  • Pessimism- They're negative all the time. They pull their teammates down, criticize good ideas in team meetings and complain about workload.
  • Stifled innovation- They aren't sharing good ideas because they're a) not engaged enough to come up with the idea in the first place, or b) keep the idea to themselves because they don't care about the company any more. Worse, when others share, they poke holes and insert their negativity into the conversation.

It's a crisis when the norm is that people think all managers are the same (bad) and that moving to a new company won't change anything. And it's a crisis for companies because disengaged employees are staying put, impacting results, and bringing others down with them.

If 1 in 4 employees could be considered the walking dead, then every team has at least one, and I don't know what's worse - the fact that they stay, or that the manager doesn't know to do anything about it.

Hidden Messages

“We knew she wasn’t happy.”

When I talk to managers who are losing an employee, they are rarely blindsided and usually say this something like that. But when I ask how they knew the employee was unhappy, few give details. They’ll respond with “she seemed checked out” or “she hasn't been as motivated lately."

But what does that actually look like?

There are hidden messages in the interactions we have with employees every day and if managers aren’t tuned in they miss those messages. My article, For Goodness’ Sake, Talk to Your People, has ideas for improving communication between managers and their employees. But here’s the thing – during those conversations, you actually have to listen and pay attention. That takes a level of emotional intelligence that many leaders forsake because they are results-focused instead of people-focused.

So what does “unhappy” look like? Here’s an example of the hidden messages Sarah’s manager could have noticed before she resigned:

  • Sarah used to voluntarily answer emails in the evening after her kids were asleep. Now, she waits until the next business day, and unless the email is high priority, waits until mid-morning to respond. Work life balance aside, the sudden change in behavior, coupled with not responding first thing in the morning, are the red flags.
  • During team meetings, Sarah was always the one to share her opinions or offer up new ideas. Over the past few months, she’s talked less and less. She’s always smiling and nodding, though, so that to the untrained eye she comes across as engaged.
  • She's started only talking about projects or tasks in 1:1 meetings, whereas before she would share stories about her kids or talk about development goals. When asked how she is doing or if she needs anything, Sarah responds “I’m good.” 1:1 meetings always end early now. Be concerned when an employee stops engaging! To simply cover the basics does not mean the meeting went well. And never settle for “I’m good” from an employee that previously used to offer up their own ideas and opinions!
  • Sarah has stopped having “drive-by” conversations with her manager, something she used to do to make sure they were connecting daily. She doesn’t pop over to ask a question, choosing instead to email, even though they sit 100 feet apart.  

For a manager who’s focused on his to do list, instead of his people, these are small signs that go unnoticed. Overall, Sarah is talking less, and when she resigns, that’s what will make her manager say “I could tell she was unhappy.”

But wait!

Sarah could have been saved!

By watching for the hidden messages, Sarah’s manager could have used 1:1 meetings to understand her feelings (I recommend Stay Interviews) and changed his leadership style to meet her needs (Ken Blanchard’s Situational Leadership is the best I’ve come across). Understandably these actions might not have been enough to save her, but by watching and listening at least he tried.

And isn’t that the most important part?

The Fire Pit Effect

Your friends are having an outdoor party in December. It’s cold, so you stand as close to their fire pit as possible, rubbing your hands together for warmth. When the wind switches direction and the smoke gets in your face, you switch sides, still seeking the heat. But eventually, you leave because it’s too cold.

If you aren’t already thinking about what your team’s 2017 goals are and brainstorming objectives with them, you’re getting ready to enter what I call the “fire pit effect.”

Think about it.

Without goals, employees are left out in the cold, trying to figure out how to stay warm (aka: What is the meaning of my work? What does success look like? How are you measuring my performance?). They get as close to the fire as they can (your expectations), try to figure out how to stay warm on their own, change direction when they think it’s time, and then eventually give up. That giving up can look like leaving the company, or worse, decreased engagement and loss of motivation.

It’s the fire pit effect and I see it all the time. It sounds like:

 “This new project is confusing and no one understands their role in it or how it’s supposed to make the company money. We’re all working late trying to get it figured out, but none of us knows what to do.”

“We dropped the ball in communicating this change because no one anticipated it coming. Get the group together for an emergency meeting.”

“We didn’t make revenue for last quarter. Stop everything you’re working on and only focus on making money next quarter.”

When there are not clear goals, the team is overworked because they’re unable to prioritize. The boss is reactive and throws more work on everyone’s plates, always at the last minute. Employees don’t understand how they fit in to the company strategy, and since leaders don’t understand what other departments are working on, work happens in silos.

What does success look like?

No one knows. So employees keep asking and searching and trying to warm their hands by seeking direction from a boss that hasn’t set goals and therefore can’t clearly articulate the path. Then eventually, they stop asking and just do what they think is best, with or without telling anyone. Then, they leave. 

All Hail the Org Chart?

Something about your boss doesn't sit well. He often interrupts. He doesn't listen to your ideas, preferring to focus on and explain his own thoughts during meetings. He throws his title around for leverage in conversations with others. He doesn't ask your opinion .... ever.

Working with him feels non-collaborative. It feels tricky, like you aren't sure what actions will be rewarded or punished. You tip toe around certain topics, worried that doing the wrong thing could mean a bad performance review or a knock on your bonus.

Is it better to be feared or loved? Your boss has chosen fear.

It's called leading with dominance (The Harvard Business Review has a great article on it) and it looks like:

A "my way or the highway" attitude. A dominant leader expects others to be on board with his idea simply because of his title. He does not like being challenged, even if it's in a simple meeting like a brainstorming session.

Surprise consequences. Didn't realize that sending an email to your manager's peers (or boss) without running it by him first was an issue? Welcome to the unwritten rules that dominant leaders put into place (and change) whenever they want. It keeps everyone in line.

The silent treatment. This can come in two forms, the first being withholding information so that he can feel more powerful. The other is a form of punishment, where he doesn't talk to you because of something you've done.

Little to no face time unless you're needed. Everything the dominant leader is doing is more important than what you're doing. So emails go unanswered, your drive-by questions are met with an annoyed face like you're interrupting, and 1:1 meetings are frequently cancelled.

Dominant leaders stifle growth. They rarely assign stretch goals or coach employees to develop certain skills because they don't focus on others - they focus on themselves. When delegating, they don't check in to make sure the employee understands what to do. They take all the credit when they can, and it's rare to see them going out of their way to say thank you to an employee or the team, because that could make it look like they didn't play the most important role in the project. Plus, they're probably too busy.

This dominance comes from a place of unworthiness, where the leader feels that he has to show power to prove he deserves the title. It comes from shame, where not looking smarter than everyone on the team (or anyone below him on the org chart) feels like a punishment. It comes from fear. So in turn, he leads with fear. It's all he knows.